Review: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, by Gideon Defoe

It is 1837, and for the luxuriantly bearded Pirate Captain and his rag-tag pirate crew, life on the high seas has become a little dull.  With nothing to do but twiddle their hooks and lounge aimlessly on tropical beaches, the Captain decides it’s time they had an adventure.

A surprisingly successful boat raid leads them to the young Charles Darwin, in desperate need of their help.  And so the pirates set forth for London in a bid to save the scientist from the evil machinations of a diabolical Bishop.  There they encounter grisly murder, vanishing ladies, the Elephant Man – and have an exciting trip to the zoo.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is the first in a series of four books by Gideon Defoe, which I read having seen the Aardman adaptation released earlier this year.  I was very glad that I did go on to read the book which inspired the film, because otherwise I would have had no idea about how different the storyline of the film was, compare to the original text.  I did enjoy the film but had a few problems with the plot – evil Queen Victoria? – whereas in Defoe’s book, the arch enemy of Darwin and the Pirate Captain is an evil Bishop, which fits much better with the early Victorian Gothic genre.

Defoe’s prose style is so dry as to be positively absorbent, heavy with irony and deliberate anachronism.  I also loved the frequent footnotes.  These techniques made me feel I was privy to a host a secret in-jokes, which won me over very quickly.

The characterisation is sparse; the pirates are not given ‘real’ names, but are instead referred to according to their most striking characteristics, which is on one hand distancing but on the other means you immediately know something about them.  Also, the book as a whole is deliberately not realistic, so this isn’t a problem.  I wondered if the lack of names was also aligning us with the Pirate Captain, who almost certainly wouldn’t trouble himself to learn the pirates actual names!

I don’t want to say too much more about Pirates, as it’s such a short little morsel that I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I highly recommend it for a quick read full of snorts and sniggers, and maybe even a piratical roar of laughter!

Kate Neilan

Tim Clare – How to be a Leader

Do you ever wish you could command a crowd of strangers? Feel like you’re not being recognised for the intellectual or political genius you are? Perhaps you’re a secret super-villain? In which case, could I recommend to you an excellent hour spent in the company of poet and story-teller Tim Clare?

Tim visited Colchester Arts Centre touring his show How to be a Leader, which starts in almost total darkness as he tells us about an experiment carried out to see how strangers would behave without light in a room together for 60 minutes – by 45 minutes, most were engaging in ‘intimate activity’… Now, the lights did come back on but Tim’s delivery, a mixture of earnest enthusiasm, humour and irony, set the tone for the show. 

The select gathering in the room, sitting relaxed around small tables, laughed more and more uproariously as Tim guided us through his rules for becoming a great leader, based on such diverse ideas as the hardcore attitude of a South Korean premier, an “awesome origin story” TM involving a violent encounter at a Bristol open mic poetry night and how to create the basics of a welfare state using only snacks.  

Tim was confident without arrogance, effortlessly drawing us in as he told anecdotes full of drama and analysed leadership techniques particularly quirky and extreme. His command of language and rhetoric was clear, especially when discussing rule 3 (the open mic night) and then when emailing the “spell lady”, from whom he hoped to gain magical powers to enthrall man-(and woman)kind. This was, I think, my favourite part of the show, as Tim’s evil intentions were gradually revealed, to little or no reaction from the spell lady in question. 

After a finale in which Tim fulfilled an ambition by rapping about various female leaders, having acknowledged the gender bias of the rest of the show, came the prize-giving: a Kinder Egg for the most sycophantic audience member.  My heart leapt as Tim stepped into the audience, brandishing the chocolatey treat, but to my great disappointment, it went to the man at the next table.  To be fair, he did laugh extremely loudly.  I’ll have to content myself with being a member of the dissatisfied middle class after all.

Kate Neilan